Tomorrow, I’m launching my first live show. Ever. It’s called “POD Comedy” and will be at the Fox and Goose pub in East Birmingham, where I grew up. I’ve received a lot of positive advice and messages of support from the vast majority of the comedy community.
However, a handful of people have said, and perhaps many more have thought, that it can’t be done. That it shouldn’t be done. “An open mic comedy night? In Ward End? At The Fox and Goose? On a Sunday night? It’s going to be a car crash!!”
A week ago, I realised I’d booked a full slate of comedians but still hadn’t sorted out an MC for the gig. Birmingham does, of course, have it’s fair share of very experienced and talented comedy comperes and I was fortunate that one of the finest of that particular elite group, Mr. Dave Dinsdale, was available.
In fact, Dinsy was one of the first to tell me the show is going to be a car crash. However, I have an inkling he doesn’t really believe that, and he‘s just being cynical (I suspect) in order to feel pleasantly surprised if/when the show goes well.
And I am going to do everything in my capability to ensure it goes well. My strategy is broken down into four strands:
I’m going to go into quite a bit of detail below, in the hope that it’s a useful checklist for inexperienced others who may decide to start a new comedy gig. So the more experienced amongst you may want to bail out now rather than spend the next ten minutes feeling patronised…
I’ve wanted to run a comedy gig in Birmingham for quite a while now. Comedy is, and always has been, my favourite art form. And it’s an under-served art form locally. However, for a comedy show to work it needs to be in the right venue otherwise you’re setting yourself up for failure. Those who know me know that I like to get things done to a very high standard. I refuse to run a gig just for the sake of running a gig. I’d spoken to several venues in East Birmingham in the past six months about running a show at their premises. However, none of them felt quite right. None, that is, until I started talking to the Fox and Goose. It’s an historic venue – 100 years old! – with a loyal group of customers. They regularly welcome live entertainment – usually music – and have a reputation for working hard to promote each event. They also welcomed the idea of trying something new and were willing to listen to different ideas and trust me to run the show the way I wanted to run it.
For the first few shows, rather than put out a general call for comedians, I decided to handpick the acts. One of the reasons for doing the show was to support local talent by providing stage time, so it made sense to put together a few Birmingham-only line-ups. I contacted most of my favourite comedians from the West Midlands scene and asked them to fill the spaces on the first few shows. And for the launch show I’ve ensured it’s a varied line-up of acts that I know will go down well with the working class punters I expect at the gig. But, perhaps more importantly, I want to bring them the “stars of tomorrow, today”. Years from now I want them to brag that they “first saw that comedian at the Fox and Goose, and now they’re on the telly!”
Sadly, today, one of my absolute favourite comedians, Matt Richards, informed me he wasn’t well enough to perform tomorrow. Luckily, I’ve managed to secure a very strong replacement for him, who hasn’t gigged for five months but has such good material and stage presence that I’m very confident she will be well received tomorrow. (I’ll find a way to get Matt on the bill at a future show though. Get well soon mate.)
Having a background in Marketing, I already know the rules for successful event promotion, which break down as:
1. Shop Window
2. Field Marketing
3. Media Relations
Shop Window: Nowadays, if you aren’t online people assume you don’t exist. So step one in any promotional campaign, well before you should do anything else, is to create virtual shop widows for yourself across the internet. And as any social media expert will tell you: the shorter the brand name, the better. You need to pick a name that hasn’t already been snapped up (website, Facebook, Twitter etc.), and describes what you do succinctly while also ensuring easy differentiation from similar endeavours. I’d already secured an online presence for a forthcoming podcast project called “POD Comedy” and, as the investment had already been made, it seemed logical to name the live show accordingly rather than invest time and money in additional website hosting, logo designs and social media space in order to create a new brand. All I needed to do was make sure all my different existing online channels were up-to-date, and consistent in design and messaging.
Field Marketing: The next step was to nab the low-hanging fruit, which in this case are the regulars who already visit the venue and will likely be grateful for the opportunity to enjoy some novel and geographically accessible entertainment. To this end, I’ve arranged for some eye-catching, large posters and flyers – featuring striking and unusual photographs of our performers – to be designed, printed and distributed around the pub. The venue itself has gone above and beyond in their own promotional effort, using all their usual channels to raise awareness of the show’s opening night, and have reported a lot of interest from passers-by and their loyal customers. I’ve also printed a few hundred cheap monochrome flyers, which I’ve been handing out at local shopping centres. I must admit, I’m not at all comfortable doing this, given my agoraphobia and anxiety issues, but if that’s what it takes to make the show a success then that’s what I’m going to do. 🙂
Media Relations: Finally, the most challenging aspect of event marketing: getting media support. You shouldn’t even consider this step before completing parts one and two above. But, if you get your media relations right the rewards can be exceptional. I’ve written a general press release and distributed it to all the local newspapers, radio stations and TV channels, as well as to arts/culture-related websites for the Midlands. I was hoping to get a small mention in a few listings sections and would have been happy with that. Amazingly, the main newspaper for the city, the Birmingham Mail, as well as a local radio station, were both happy to give the show a prominent plug and this should (I estimate) add an extra 10-20% to the crowd.
Having worked in a comedy club for several years, and performed at scores of venues across the country, I’ve picked up a lot of advice about what it takes to make sure the punters enjoy the night. And about mistakes the venues make that put barriers between the comedians and their audiences connecting as they should.
I’d been given a choice by the venue of putting the show on in a corner of the main bar (which is “intimate” and full of people staring at sports on wall-mounted televisions) and the large room at the back that’s used by live bands on a regular basis. I’ve been given conflicting advice about which is the better option, but following the wisdom of some experienced local MC’s I’ve chosen to use the large room. It already has a makeshift stage area with spotlights, and is wired for sound with about a dozen speakers spread across the entire span. It’s normally used as a restaurant section, but for tomorrow’s show I’ll be able to re-arrange the furniture to my own design. Essentially, I plan to mimic, in miniature, the usual layout of the large professional comedy clubs.
Earlier today, to the venue’s complete surprise, I went over with all my show-running paraphernalia to carry out a technical rehearsal. I’m told this is quite unusual, as for most performances they’re used to people turning up a few hours before start-time and hoping that everything will work out. I’m not one for flying by the seat of my pants. Which is why, earlier today, I carried out a lighting check, tested the sound using the specially prepared musical playlist on my iPod, put up the vinyl banners to make sure they fit and, finally, tested the PA system. And then packed it all back up again once I was confident it was all good and ready for tomorrow.
My final, crucial preparations are for what happens on the day as the audience starts arriving. From experience, I know that, unless people are coming to see a well-know act, punters avoid the front rows and gravitate towards the back of the room. So I’ve printed out some “Reserved” signs that I’ll distribute around the back row tables. Hopefully, this will force our audience to head to the front of the room. Hopefully.
I’ve also ordered some lollipops (in bulk off ebay) which will be distributed free to all our visitors. The logic being that sugar is a known mood enhancer and a lollipop is evocative of childhood happiness. Will a free lolly put our punters in a positive mood, so they’re physiologically and psychologically primed to laugh? I’m hoping it will.
So… the stage is set. How will it go? We’ll find out tomorrow. I’ll post a review afterwards.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go stand in the freezing cold outside a local shopping centre and hand out some more flyers…